In an announcement on the website of his political action committee, former national security adviser John Bolton declared Monday that “if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony” in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, “I am prepared to testify.”
Senate Democrats greeted the news as a new pressure point on their Republican colleagues, who have so far been pointedly uninterested in hearing from new witnesses against Trump. Bolton, a key figure in the Ukraine scandal whose testimony has not been taken, finally decided that he just needed someone to serve him, and he’d show up. How could Senate Republicans refuse to call him as a witness now, as Democrats have been demanding, when he’s all warmed up and ready to go? Do they not want to get to the bottom of it?
The Bolton news, however, did not immediately spark the Republican mutiny that Democrats have been fantasizing about. If there are four Republican senators willing to join with Democrats to summon additional witnesses and documents for the (eventual) trial, they did a good job of hiding it upon returning to the Capitol on Monday afternoon.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who announced last month that he would run the trial in coordination with the defendant’s attorneys, wouldn’t even consider the act of considering a new witness at this point. McConnell is insisting instead on a process in which the Senate would start the impeachment trial, hear opening statements from impeachment managers and the president’s defense, and allow senators ask questions before votes on whether or not to bring in additional witnesses.
“The Senate has a unanimous bipartisan precedent for when to handle mid-trial questions such as witnesses: in the middle of the trial,” McConnell said in his opening remarks on the Senate floor on Monday. “In 1999, every single U.S. senator agreed to establish basic parameters for the start of the trial upfront and reserve mid-trial questions such as witnesses until later. The Senate said, 100 to nothing, that was good enough for President Clinton. So it ought to be good enough for President Trump. Fair is fair.”
McConnell’s Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, described this as the “Alice-in-Wonderland” approach: “First the trial, then the evidence.”
“If the Senate were to agree to Leader McConnell’s proposal,” Schumer said on the floor, “the Senate will act as little more than a nationally televised meeting of a mock trial club.”
Judging by Republican senators’ reactions later Monday afternoon, Schumer’s literary reference was not persuasive enough to convince Republican senators to essentially switch control of the impeachment trial process from their own leader to the Democrats. They offered a couple of different talking points for why the Senate shouldn’t summon a suited-up witness like Bolton at the start of the trial.
Numerous senators suggested, as McConnell has been saying, that it’s not the Senate’s job in the trial to gather supplementary evidence beyond what the House has already gathered in creating the articles of impeachment.
“I am not in favor of calling witnesses and redoing work that the House Democrats failed to do,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said. “This is what the impeachment process is for. They did it very badly.”
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who’s in a competitive race this cycle, went with that line, too. “I’m in the position now where I want to consider the weight of the evidence coming from the House. I don’t want to do their work,” Tillis told reporters.
So he didn’t want to hear from Bolton?
“It’s not that I don’t want to hear from him,” Tillis said. Oh? “I want to hear from him if the House is willing to do their work and have the same agreement with the ambassador [Bolton] on their side of the Hill.” (House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, spotted on the Senate side of the Capitol on Monday, told reporters that he wouldn’t rule out subpoenaing Bolton, but “he really should testify in the Senate trial. That makes the most sense.”)
Other Republican senators would concede that their fields of vision could extend beyond material transmitted by the House of Representatives, but still wouldn’t break from McConnell’s timeline: Start the trial, present cases, field questions, and then consider additional witnesses.
“It’ll depend on what we learn in the House’s impeachment statement to begin with,” South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds told me when asked whether he thought Bolton should be called. “We make up our minds on who we want for witnesses after we’ve heard from the House, in terms of what their argument is.”
This was also the rationale from the usual most-watched Republican in the Senate: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. She stood by the process that McConnell had laid out. But would she like to hear from Bolton?
Maybe—later! “I think we will decide, at that stage, who we need to hear from,” she told reporters, as the elevator doors closed on her.
Democrats consider this timeline, while reasonable on its face, to be a ruse. The phase that McConnell envisions as the “start” of the trial may last for weeks. Then, when the time comes to consider calling witnesses, Republicans will all say that they have already heard enough, that there was no “there” there and Democrats were exhausting the patience of the American people. It would be easier, then, for 51 Republicans to reject additional witnesses.
Senate Democrats aren’t actually expecting four Republicans to break with their party and side with Chuck Schumer on setting the trial process. They’re hoping, at least, to maximize whatever pain they can bring to bear on the senators they’re targeting in 2020, like Collins and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner. Democrats are trying to present them with a choice between, as Schumer put it, “a fair trial or a cover-up.” Now that a crucial witness has made himself available (at least in principle)—and has done it before the House hands over the impeachment articles and McConnell makes the process official—the Senate Republicans will have a harder time explaining why they don’t want to hear from him.